Have you ever wondered why so many so-called “live service” games fail to live up to expectations and ultimately get shut down? Or why so many of these types of titles are actively despised by players all around the world?
I’ve lost count of the number of times an exciting-sounding game has been announced only for me to end up sighing with disappointment when I hear the dreaded words “live service.” To many players, those words have come to epitomise all of the worst things about gaming as a hobby in 2021, and it’s got to a point where a game has to offer something truly exceptional before I’ll even consider stepping over the live service hurdle to give it a shot.
I’ve talked on a number of occasions about the “release now, fix later” business model that has corrupted the modern games industry. In short, games companies see the internet as an easy way to roll out patches and fixes after a game has been released, thanks to the ubiquity of internet connectivity on every gaming platform nowadays, so they figure they can release a game in an incomplete state and fix it after launch. Though games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Cyberpunk 2077 prove that this isn’t a phenomenon unique to live services, these kinds of titles are almost universally afflicted.
Many live service games launch with a “roadmap” – another dreaded gaming neologism that rightly turns off anyone who hears it. In lieu of actual gameplay features, levels, and content, the game arrives in a threadbare state with a so-called roadmap, which is little more than a euphemism for promises of updates and new content. All too often, though, the promised updates never arrive because the game gets shut down. The roadmap leads to a dead end.
If a game felt complete – with enough characters, levels, and whatever else it needs – promises of further content would be no bad thing. It would give the game’s fans something to look forward to while they enjoyed what was available at launch. But it’s rare that a live service feels complete at launch, and most roadmaps end up promising content that should have been part of the original game.
So we come to what I’m calling the “live service spiral.” Here’s how it goes: a live service game launches to mediocre reviews from critics and players, with many criticising its threadbare state and unfinished nature. Though there is a roadmap promising further content to come at some nebulous future date, many players who were considering picking up the game instead adopt a “wait-and-see” approach, biding their time until the promised updates arrive and the game is actually worth playing. But this leads to lower-than-expected sales, which in turn means that the publisher panics and decides to cancel the roadmap, ending development on the game and cancelling planned updates and patches. The game’s remaining players drift away, disappointed, to await the next title and begin the cycle again.
In 2021, having seen so many of these live services stumble out of the gate and get unceremoniously shut down shortly thereafter, I have less and less sympathy for players who still believe the hype and get hooked in with promises. If a game isn’t good enough when it launches to be worth my time – and more importantly, my money – why should I give it either on the back of vague promises? And if you choose to invest in a live service game knowing how many have come and gone in the blink of an eye, why should I offer you my sympathy when the next one follows the pattern and also fails?
So many games have been in this position. Just in the last few years we can call to mind titles like Anthem, Star Wars Battlefront, WWE 2K20, Destiny 1, and probably Marvel’s Avengers within the next few months. So there are more than enough examples to serve as warnings that this business model is not worth investing in.
Here’s the basic problem that games industry managers and executives can’t seem to wrap their corporate heads around: for every Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto Online there are a dozen or more Anthems or Destinys. For every title that adopts a live service model and makes a success of it, there are dozens more that fail. And if a company isn’t willing to put money and effort into creating a title that players actually want to spend their time playing, desperately chasing the faltering live service trend will always be a losing proposition.
Many live service games were doomed from the very moment they were conceived in the mind of a business executive. Someone with precious little understanding of the industry looked at Fortnite or Rainbow Six Siege, and without knowing the first thing about those games nor realising they’re about a decade too late, said to their team “make me one of those.” From that very moment the game was dead on arrival – but nobody realised it, or at least nobody had the balls to tell the publisher.
All the way through development and through the extensive marketing campaign that followed, dedicated developers tried their best to build a game to the specifications of some moron in a suit, and it was all for nothing. All of that time, effort, and money was pissed away chasing after a concept that’s already played out for a company that never understood it in the first place. In many cases, “crunch” and other abusive working practices saw developers and other employees suffer actual quantifiable harm, all for the sake of a meaningless, useless piece of shit game like Anthem. Imagine working yourself half to death for the sake of Anthem, only to see the game shut down months after it launched.
Hopefully the backlash some of these games generate, combined with lacklustre sales and continued failures to meet expectations, will see this business model slowly start to die off. But all of us need to be very careful about throwing our money into any live service game that comes along in future. Companies have proven time and again that they see these games as disposable and they’re willing to cut and run from a failing project no matter how many players get screwed over in the process. If they treat their own games with such little respect, why should we buy into such a model?
We have to find a way to break the live service spiral, to show games companies that this business model is no longer viable. Some noteworthy failures, like those mentioned above, will start to cause a rethink in corporate boardrooms, but the process needs to accelerate. Not just for the sake of us having better games to play, but for the physical and mental health of those in the industry working on these titles.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.